SICILY 2007 - Week 7
name of Syracuse (modern Siracusa) ought to strike dread into the hearts
of any imperialist nation which, with arrogant over-confidence in the
invincibility of its world-power status, seeks to impose military might
on smaller states (G Bush, take note). The 5th century BC historian,
Thucydides records in gruelling detail the Great Expedition launched by
all-powerful Athens in 415 BC against the Sicilian colony of Syracuse,
and the humiliatingly crushing defeat on land and sea which brought an
end to Athens' golden age.
Our visit to Siracusa was to be an evocative 'walk with Thucydides'. The bus dropped us across the bridge on the island of Ortygia, site of the original foundation and later medieval city; the modern development spread onto the immediate mainland around the natural safe anchorage of the Great Harbour. A 10 minute walk brought us up into Piazza Duomo, the historic square surrounded by magnificent palazzi and dominated by the over-ornate Baroque of Siracusa's Cathedral. This place has served as holy ground for 3,000 years, having been a pre-Greek Sikel sanctuary, an imposing Temple of Athena built in 480 BC, an early Christian basilica, a mosque during the 9th century AD Saracen occupation, and finally a Norman cathedral with Baroque frontage added after the 1693 earthquake. And each era has left its visible traces. The later structures were built around the framework of the Classical Temple of Athena, and in the side street of Via Minerva, you see a sight to thrill even the dullest imagination: there are the 5th century BC Doric columns built into the outer wall of the Norman cathedral. Inside it's even more fascinating: the Classical temple's inner cella walls had been pierced with a number of openings, leaving pillars of stonework, to form the cathedral's nave, and the outer Doric colonnade, now half-engaged within the Norman walls is clearly visible, distorted by the 1693 earthquake showing how close the entire structure had been to collapse. Only the frontage fell, to be replaced with the present Baroque fašade which dominates Piazza Duomo (Photo 1). We wandered happily among the narrow lanes of the medieval town, over to the waterfront which looks out across the azure Ionian Sea towards Italy and the Greek homeland. From here also we could look south to the mouth of the Great Harbour which, in 413 BC, the Syracusans had blocked with a barricade of ships, trapping the mighty Athenian armada in the narrow confines of the bay, leading to humiliating naval defeat and disaster for the whole expedition. It was an evocative moment, gazing out at this moment of tragic history.
Following Rough Guide's generally sound advice, we enjoyed a splendid value lunch at the Trattoria-Spaghetteria Do Scogghia, which boasts 'Oltre venti modi di condire migliori spaghetti della cittÓ - specialita marinare'. And indeed it was good, with every kind of shellfish in a piquant tomato sauce. Back down into the town, we stood to admire the excavated remains of the 6th century BC Temple of Apollo, the earliest Doric temple in Sicily, with its dedicatory inscription still visible on the stylobate. Finding the bus back out to the campsite was even more of a challenge, particularly when the 'circolare' bus only passed our turning after a tour of the local villages. It had been a glorious first day in the city, full of interest.
The following day was plagued by rain, cagoule weather only fit for a visit to Siracusa's excellent Archaeological Museum. Despite however the immense range of treasures on display, visitors are faced with no brochures to guide them through the bewildering layout, surly and indifferent staff, and yet again the infuriating 'no photography' signs; but in typically Sicilian style, the attendants were too busy chatting in groups or playing with mobile phones to bother visitors who were equally busy taking photos. Despite all this, the displays were excellent: the geology, palaeontology and pre-history of Sicily, including skeletons of the dwarf elephants which developed in isolation on the island and whose skulls are thought to be the origins of the one-eyed Cyclops legend; Neolithic remains from Sicily's indigenous Sikel peoples, followed by remains from the period of Greek colonisation. A new gallery displayed finds from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, including the renowned Aphrodite Anadiomene - Venus Rising from the Water - a 2nd century AD Roman copy of the Greek original (Photo 2). Our return walk to catch the bus took us past the least harmonious and over-prominent addition to the Syracusan skyline, the monstrous Sanctuario della Madonna della Lacrime, built in the mid-90's to house a statue reputed to have wept. And seeing the inverted concrete cone rearing skyward in her honour, it's not surprising that this Madonna wept. Nearby however we found the more refined 17th century Church of Santa Lucia, built on the spot where Siracusa's patron saint was martyred in 304 AD, and the palm-planted Piazza Santa Lucia (Photo 3).
On a scorching Sunday morning, we again braved the obscurities of buses and tickets to visit Siracusa's Archaeological Park, the centrepiece of which is the magnificent Greek Theatre. We have seen many ancient theatres, but this was one of the largest, cut into the natural slope of the hill, with much of the limestone seating still intact (Photo 4). The arena, seating originally 15,000 spectators, overlooks the modern city and distant Great Harbour. Workmen were busy installing stage assembly and wooden seating for the forthcoming season of Classical tragedies productions. Nearby are the precipitous-sided limestone quarries from which the stone to build the early city had been extracted. Now you might say, so what? Readers of Thucydides will however recall that the 7,000 Athenian survivors of the Great Expedition debacle were punitively worked to death in these quarries. Paul's undergraduate reading came alive, standing here in the floor of this quarry prison, now planted with exotic trees (Photo 5). Syracuse had been a notable early Christian centre, where the dead were buried in catacombs hewn from the rock of former underground aqueducts. One of these under the ruined basilica of San Giovanni can be visited. An estimated 10,000 were buried in the gloomy network of passageways and rotundas. Of all the places we have visited, this ranked among the most uncanny.
Another curiosity of Syracuse can be found just to the city's south: the tiny, shallow river Ciane winds its sluggish 10 kms from its source to the Great Harbour. Its significance however is of being the only place nowadays in the Mediterranean where papyrus grows naturally. What's papyrus? you'll probably ask. Well the thick fleshy stems of this tall reed-like marsh plant, stripped of their green outer layer, and the fibrous spongy white core sliced into strips, soaked and laid in 2 perpendicular layers, pressed and dried, made the ancient world's paper. In a sense, the papyrus plant played as important a part in human development as the wheel: the latter gave man mobility, while papyrus enabled human kind to develop literacy and to express its higher thoughts and to maintain commercial records more readily than on clay. Add to these the domestication of animals, and cultivation of cereals, olives and the vine, and human civilisation came alive. In Siracusa, there is a small museum dedicated to the history, production and usages of papyrus; a visit here is a must. In the ancient world, papyrus paper-making was centred in the Nile delta in Egypt, and the plant was introduced to Sicily as a gift to Syracuse from a Ptolemy. It's an unfathomable mystery why growth of papyrus is confined to the tiny River Ciane, but as we walked along its banks to the short river's source, there were the papyrus plants growing in the shallow waters, its 10 feet high stems topped with pom-poms of plumed leaves (Photo 6). The dappled sunlight from overhanging trees gave the setting a peaceful serenity, the papyrus' curious appearance doing justice to the plant's significance for human civilisation. And by the river's mouth, we stood by the Great Harbour at the spot where in 415 BC the Athenians had beached their triremes - another evocative moment. It was a walk with a difference, full of historical and botanical significance.
We left Siracusa to continue northwards via the Pantalica Gorge, a mighty cleft in the harshly wild high limestone plateau. The area had been settled by the indigenous Sikels in the 12th century BC, but what makes it unique is the necropolis of over 5,000 tombs which honeycomb the high limestone cliffs. It's a challenging drive to reach Pantalica, but both the magnificent setting and its curious history makes the effort worthwhile. It was a gloomy thunderous day for our visit, giving the gorge and its necropolis an eerie and almost primeval air, the sinister feeling only relieved by the paradise of wild flora which lined the path down into the gorge. What a contrast as we moved back down to the coast for that night's camp: the horrendous mass of metal forming the Augusta oil refinery made Gela seem almost restrained. At our campsite near the village of Brucoli, we were greeted with a paradoxical sign 'Baia del Silenzio - Discotheque'; first impressions did not impress, but we found a flattish area of rocky shoreline for a wind-swept camp, with the distant lights of Catania twinkling on the northern skyline, our next port of call.
But before that, we diverted 50 miles inland to the mountain-top town of Enna, a visit squeezed out earlier by bad weather. The town is a formidable sight, set at 1,000 feet above the surrounding plains, fortified and besieged by successive occupying powers across history: whoever held Enna strategically controlled central Sicily. And the old town gave impressively panoramic views across the precipitous valley sides to the hill-top village of Calascibetta perched similarly atop a mountain peak opposite (Photo 7).
The traffic around Catania was horrendous - viciously intimidating; if you were looking for a reason to avoid Catania and move on directly to Etna, this was certainly one of them. The rest of Sicily seems to share this negative view of Sicily's 2nd city: a favourite piece of graffiti ribaldry is Let's all go to Catania and burn it down. In fact Etna almost achieved that in 1669 when a monumental eruption enveloped the city with black lava adding an extra 2 kms to the coastline. The city also has the island's worst record for street crime, so don't go unless you are well zipped up and 'city-proofed'. Camping Jonio just north of the city was expensive but welcoming, but we could only find 2 reasons for our visit by bus to Catania: 1) to experience the renowned fish markets, and 2) to get a decent fish lunch. We managed to achieve both in 1 day in Catania. The Pesceria (fish market) was a sight to startle the imagination: a fishy mayhem staggering in its intensity - stalls of wooden crates and buckets, filled with every kind of fish and shellfish, from heaps of tiny prawns to enormous tuna and sword-fish (pesce spada). Stall-holders hacked and chopped and sliced for all they were worth, yelling at one another in boisterous banter. There were buckets full of squid and octopus and heaps of mussels and sea-urchins, and curious flat eels looped over like silver foil. Bemused by all the noise and hyper-activity, and bewildered by all the variety and quantities of fish, we wandered among the stalls (Photo 8). Who would buy all this fish, and who would clear up the mess when the market packed up? We achieved our 2nd objective in the same market, finding the excellent value Antica Trattoria La Paglia della Pesceria for our fishy lunch. And by the time we emerged, the market was a different world: gone was all the produce, noise and activity; all that was left were heaps of rubbish, boxes and fish waste, and Catania's refuse staff hosing down the mess.
We concluded our time in Catania with 2 memorable experiences which would form a worthy prelude to the next phase of the trip - our time on and around Etna, Europe's largest active volcano. In Catania's cathedral, tucked away in a side chapel, we found the painting showing the devastating impact of the 1669 Etna eruption, with black lava enveloping the city. Outside, looking north along the aptly named Via Etna, there was the mighty snow-capped bulk of Etna itself, looming ominously. Join us again in 2 weeks to share our experiences on Etna.
Sheila and Paul Published: Friday 11 May